Emotional Striptease [EXOTICA]

From the Chicago Reader, March 17, 1995. — J.R.

Exotica

Rating *** A must see

Directed and written by Atom Egoyan

With Bruce Greenwood, Elias Koteas, Mia Kirshner, Don McKellar, Arsinee Khanjian, and Sarah Polley.

The saddest parts of Exotica — Atom Egoyan’s lush and affecting sixth feature, a movie inflected like its predecessors by obsessive sexual rituals and desperate familial longings — are moments when money awkwardly changes hands. This film is every bit as allegorical as his Speaking Parts, The Adjuster, and Calendar — and every bit as concerned with a need for family surrogates as Next of Kin and Family Viewing – but it is only incidentally a movie about capitalism and its ability to pervert personal relationships. It does involve voyeurism, corruption, and a form of prostitution; all these things are conventionally associated with capitalism, but they’ve been around much longer.

Exotica has plenty to say about the modern world, including the psychological, social, and racial (even colonial) ramifications of “exotic” sexual tastes, but class difference isn’t a significant part of its agenda either. The personal and professional links forged between individuals — and there are very few relationships in this movie that aren’t both personal and professional — all seem predicated on forms of barter, as well as the assumption that everyone is, or eventually becomes, either a substitute for a missing family member or a virtual double for someone else.… Read more »

Ambiguous Evidence: Cozarinsky’s “Cinema Indirect”

From the September-October 1995 issue of Film Comment. I should stress that this essay is very much out of date once one starts to consider Cozarinsky’s prolific subsequent career as both a writer and a filmmaker — although I’ve anachronistically included a few recent book covers and film posters as illustrations, as well as a poster and two stills from his most commercially successful film to date, the 2005 Ronda Nocturna, known in English as Night Watch, in part to help make up for the impossibility of finding stills for some of the rarer films of his discussed here.

Let me also quote my Reader capsule review of Night Watch: “With a few exceptions, I prefer the literature of Edgardo Cozarinsky, an Argentinean based mainly in Paris, to his films, and his nonfiction in both realms to his fiction. But this poetic, atmospheric drama, shot in Buenos Aires, challenged my bias, mixing the natural and the supernatural, the cinematic and the literary, with such assurance that Cozarinsky no longer seems like a divided artist. Following a teenage street hustler through the night of All Saints’ Day, he turns a documentary about his hometown and its street life into a haunting piece of magical realism.Read more »

Cannes Journal (1973)

Here’s my Cannes coverage for Film Comment‘s September-October issue in 1973, the fourth year I attended the festival. The two least known of the films I wrote about, Some Call It Loving and Quem é Beta?, are, unsurprisingly, the two for which it was hardest to find decent illustrations.

A couple of apologies: (1) In my haste to defend Some Call it Loving against Andrew Sarris’s and Molly Haskell’s scorn, I managed to forget or overlook the fact that one sequence, in a nightclub, does feature some nudity; and (2) I no longer find my curt dismissal of History Lessons at all persuasive — in particular my claim that it duplicates the style and/or methodology of Othon. — J.R.

Cannes Journal

Jonathan Rosenbaum

If TOUCH OF EVIL, as Paul Schrader has suggested, is film noir’s epitaph, jean Eustache’s LA MAMAN ET LA PUTAIN (THE MOTHER AND THE WHORE) may well turn out to be the last gasp and funeral oration of the Nouvelle Vague — the swan song of a genre/school that shatters its assumptions and reconstructs them into something else, and newer model that is sadder but wiser and tinged with more than trace of nostalgic depression. MCCABE AND MRS.… Read more »

Home Truths [THE ASTHENIC SYNDROME]

From the September 13, 1996 issue of the Chicago Reader. This film was probably the most popular of the dozen features I showed last week to MA students in my World Cinema Workshop at Film.Factory in Sarajevo (September 15-19, 2014). — J.R.

The Asthenic Syndrome

Rating **** Masterpiece

Directed by Kira Muratova

Written by Sergei Popov, Alexander Chernych, and Muratova

With Popov, Olga Antonova, Natalya Busko, Galina Sachurdaewa, Alexandra Ovenskaya, and Natalya Rallewa.

Every time I am asked what the film is about, I reply, quite honestly, “It’s about everything.” — Kira Muratova, 1990

Seven years have passed since I first saw Kira Muratova’s awesome The Asthenic Syndrome at the Toronto film festival, and while waiting for it to find its way to Chicago I’ve had plenty of time to speculate about why a movie of such importance should be so hard for us to see. Insofar as movies function as newspapers, this one has more to say about the state of the world in the past decade than any other new film I’ve seen during the same period, though what it has to say isn’t pretty. So maybe the reason it’s entitled to only one local screening — at the Film Center this Sunday — is the movie business’s perception that it must offer only pretty pictures.… Read more »

Problems of Access: On the Trail of Some Festival Films and Filmmakers

Adapted from “Problemes d’accès: Sur les traces de quelque films et cinéastes ‘de festival,’” translated by Jean-Luc Mengus, Trafic no. 30, été 1999. — J.R.

istandalonetitle

“Festival film”: a mainly pejorative term in the film business, especially in North America. It generally refers to a film destined to be seen by professionals, specialists, or cultists but not by the general public because some of these professionals decide it won’t or can’t be sufficiently profitable to warrant distribution. Whether these professionals are distributors, exhibitors, programmers, publicists, or critics is a secondary issue, particularly because these functions are increasingly viewed today as overlapping, and sometimes even as interchangeable.

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The two types of critic one sees at festivals are those (the majority) who want to see the films that will soon be distributed in their own territories, and those who want to see the films that they’ll otherwise never get to see — or in some cases films that may not arrive in their territories for a few years. The first group is apt to be guided in their choices of what to see by distributors, or else by calculated guesses of what distributors will buy. The second group, if it hopes to have any influence, will ultimately seek to persuade potential distributors as well as ordinary spectators, but whether it functions in this way or not, its spirit is generally guided by cinephilia more than by business interests.… Read more »

Pieces of the Action (RUN LOLA RUN)

From the Chicago Reader (July 2, 1999). — J.R.

Run Lola Run

Rating ** Worth seeing

Directed and written by Tom Tykwer

With Franka Potente, Moritz Bleibtreu,

Herbert Knaup, Armin Rohde, and Joachim Krol.

A low-budget no-brainer, Run Lola Run is a lot more fun than Speed, a big-budget no-brainer from five years ago. It’s just as fast moving, the music is better, and though the characters are almost as hackneyed and predictable, the conceptual side has a lot more punch. If Run Lola Run had opened as widely as Speed and it too had been allowed to function as everyday mall fodder, its release could have been read as an indication that Americans were finally catching up with people in other countries when it comes to the pursuit of mindless pleasures. Instead it’s opening at the Music Box as an art movie.

Why try to sell an edgy youth thriller with nothing but kicks on its mind as an art movie? After all, it’s only a movie — a rationale that was trotted out for Speed more times than I care to remember. The dialogue of Run Lola Run is certainly simple and cursory, but it happens to be in subtitled German — which in business terms means that it has to be marketed as a film, not a movie.… Read more »

It’s a Big World After All [The Best Movies of 2001]

From the Chicago Reader (January 4, 2002). — J.R.

There is no such thing as film production. It is a joke, as much as the production of literature, pictures, or music. There are no good years for films, like good years for wine. A great film is an accident, a banana skin under the feet of dogma; and the films that we try to defend are a few of those that despise rules. — Jean Cocteau, 1949

Two events in the year 2001 changed my relation to movies — one public and momentous, the other private and relatively trivial. The public event, of course, took place on September 11, and for many Americans, myself included, it broadened dramatically what we mean when we say “us.” It changed the way we see the world as well as the U.S., and for me the change in the way we see the world was more important. Some of my compatriots may still not be able to move mentally beyond this country, even theoretically; others may be considering the possibility for the first time. I saw better than ever the role movies can play in helping us understand the world from other perspectives, and the sudden outpouring of interest in films about Afghanistan — most notably Jung (War): In the Land of the Mujaheddin and Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s Kandahar — was only the most obvious sign that this is happening.… Read more »

Reactionary Humor and Southern Comfort (review of A CONFEDERACY OF DUNCES)

This book review appeared in the August 27, 1980 issue of The Soho News. –J.R.

A Confederacy of Dunces

By John Kennedy Toole

Foreword by Walker Percy

Louisiana State University Press, $12.95

Is it by mere chance, or through some form of subtly earned tragic irony, that this brilliantly funny, reactionary novel is being published during a reactionary period, apparently about a decade and a half after it was written? God knows what it might have been like to read this in the mid-’60s. I suspect it would have been less warmly received — on reason, perhaps, why it wasn’t published way back then.

What I mean by Reactionary Humor is the boring literary schemes of Tom Sawyer, not the expedient escape tactics of Huck Finn. Broadly speaking, it’s what we learn to expect from the perennial antics of Blondie and Dagwood, Amos and Andy, Franny and Zooey, Laurel and Hardy (and Marie and Bruce, in Wallace Shawn’s recent play), not to mention W.C. Fields, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Archie Bunker, and Woody Allen.

One can even say that Reactionary Humor is what we get from Don Quixote –a figure mentioned twice by Walker Percy (along with Oliver Hardy and Thomas Aquinas) in the foreword to this remarkable, posthumous New Orleans novel, whose author killed himself at the age of 32.… Read more »

The Stuff of Dreams [on SUNRISE]

From The Guardian, January 31, 2004. — J.R.

Some film industry bigwigs dream of owning a Rembrandt. In the 1920s, William Fox, head of Hollywood’s Fox studio, wanted a Murnau. A prestigious German director in his late 30s, F.W. Murnau already had 17 German features to his credit (only nine of which survive today). But this was an unprecedented case of a well-stocked studio giving carte blanche to a foreign director simply for the sake of prestige. Murnau took advantage of this opportunity by creating a universal fable that, as an opening intertitle put it, could take place anywhere and at any time: his 1927 masterpiece, Sunrise.

The standard line about the film is that it lost piles of money for Fox. Maybe it did. But film history often consists of writers dutifully copying the mistakes of their predecessors, and I’m afraid I have to plead guilty to having perpetuated this particular story myself. According to film curator David Pierce, “Sunrise was Fox’s third-highest-grossing film for 1928, surpassed only by Frank Borzage’s Seventh Heaven and John Ford’s Four Sons” — both films that were visibly influenced by Murnau. (The first, for starters, employed Gaynor, the second, some of Sunrise‘s sets.) Of course, it’s theoretically possible that the grosses didn’t make back the film’s cost, but I’d rather think that Fox’s investment paid off in one way or another.… Read more »

Outfoxing the Film Industry

From the Chicago Reader (July 30, 2004). — J.R.

Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch’s War on Journalism

Directed by Robert Greenwald.

DVDs are bringing about rapid and substantial changes in the way we consume movies, and in film culture itself. A case in point is Robert Greenwald’s Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch’s War on Journalism, which premiered July 13 on DVD and video rather than in theaters. You could have seen it at one of more than 3,000 “house party” viewings organized by MoveOn.org two Sundays ago, or you can just buy it online for $9.95 plus shipping as I did. There must be lots of others like me, because Outfoxed has been Amazon’s top-selling video title for over a week now, and the last time I looked it had 133 customer reviews.

Watching the muckraking examination of the Fox News Channel at home had its advantages: as soon as it was over, I was able to switch directly to Fox to see if it really was as awful as Greenwald’s documentary maintained. (It was.) There are also advantages to keeping a DVD like this on the shelf: you can refer back to certain points in the film for clarification. And facts aren’t all you might want to go back to: if it’s an art film, for instance, you can jump to a favorite passage — a camera movement, a facial expression, a composition, or the delivery of a line of dialogue — the same way you can open a book to revisit some favorite lines of poetry.… Read more »

Take Two: THE 5,000 FINGERS OF DR. T.

The principal source of this article — written for American Film, and published in their October 1978 issue — was a fairly lengthy phone conversation I once had with Theodor Seuss Geisel (1904-1991), better known as Dr. Seuss, when I was living in San Diego. More specifically, this happened while I was teaching in the Visual Arts Department at the University of California, San Diego, and booked The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T. for one of my film classes. I can no longer call whether this was for my course called Paranoia or for one of Raymond Durgnat’s classes that I took over for him after he unexpectedly and rather mysteriously returned to London in the middle of a quarter. (He was also a big fan of the film.)

 

Geisel, the main auteur of the film (at least as I saw it), also lived in San Diego, and hoping that he could come to the class as a guest lecturer, I managed to get ahold of his address and wrote him a letter. By way of replying with a friendly refusal, Geisel called me one day at the house in a Del Mar canyon that I was subletting at the time (along with filmmaker Louis Hock and, for the time he was around, Ray Durgnat) and politely begged off, explaining that his relation to this movie was rather traumatic.Read more »

Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination

From Cineaste, Summer 2007. — J.R.

Walt Disney:
The Triumph of the American Imagination

by Neal Gabler. New York:
Alfred A. Knopf, 2006. 851 pp.,
illus. Hardcover: $35.00.

This is the first book by Neal Gabler since his magisterial and eye-opening An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood (1988) that hasn’t seriously disappointed me, though I didn’t warm to its virtues right away. His 1994 biography of Walter Winchell (Winchell: Gossip, Power and the Culture of Celebrity) had less of an impact on me than the 1971 journeyman’s effort of Bob Thomas (which I also preferred to Michael Herr’s 1990 musings on the subject), while Life, The Movie: How Entertainment Conquered Reality (1998), which I barely remember now, felt at the time like all windup and no delivery. And one clear limitation of this hefty volume from the outset, in spite of its strengths, is that Gabler can’t function very effectively as either a critic of Disney’s films or as a historian of Hollywood animation; his talent lies elsewhere.

Given Gabler’s privileged access to Disney files and papers, this may be the closest thing to an authorized biography that we can expect to get, but it doesn’t exactly add up to an apologia — even though it refutes charges of Disney being anti-Semitic, and, apart from occasionally conceding that he was mainly a passionately anti-union Goldwater Republican, tends to depoliticize him.… Read more »

Review of SPEAKING ABOUT GODARD & NEGATIVE SPACE

From Cineaste, Fall 1998. –J.R.

Speaking About Godard

by Kaja Silverman and Harun Farocki; foreword by Constance Penley. New York/London: New York University Press, 1998. 245 pp., illus. Hardcover: $55.00, Paperback: $17.95.

Negative Space: Manny Farber at the Movies (expanded edition)

by Manny Farber; preface by Robert Walsh. New York: Da Capo Press, 1998. Paperback: $15.95.

Kaja Silverman and Harun Farocki’s dialogues about eight features by Jean-Luc Godard, stretching from Vivre sa vie (1962) to Nouvelle vague (1990), is a book I’ve been awaiting ever since coming across its sixth and seventh chapters, on Numéro deux (1975) and Passion (1981), in issues of the journals Camera Obscura and Discourse, respectively. The two best critical studies I’ve encountered anywhere of these difficult, neglected masterworks, they manage to account for a great deal of what’s going on in them, metaphorically, ideologically, and intellectually, and the graceful division of labor between the two critics as they proceed through the films — roughly speaking, a dialectical exchange between Freud (Silverman) and Marx (Farocki) — makes the process of their exploration all the more illuminating. Silverman, a film theorist who teaches at Berkeley, and Farocki, a German essayistic filmmaker with over seventy films to his credit, are both primarily concerned with what these two films mean, and they attack this question with a great deal of lucidity and rigor.… Read more »

Dream Stuff [on MACAO, OR BEYOND THE SEA]

From the July 14, 1989 Chicago Reader. –J.R.

MACAO, OR BEYOND THE SEA

*** (A must-see)

Directed by Clemens Klopfenstein

Written by Klopfenstein, Wolfram Groddeck, and Felix Tissi

With Max Ruedlinger, Christine Lauterburg, Hans-Dieter Jendreyko, Shirley Wong, and Che Tin Hong.

1. Some part of me feels an enormous gratitude for movies that I don’t fully understand. The compulsive legibility of commercial movies — designed to be synopsized in three or four sentences, promoted in one or two catchphrases, represented in a short trailer, consumed in a single gulp — has a tendency over the long haul to give clarity a bad name; Hollywood’s form of lucidity usually rules out feelings, moods, and ideas that can’t be encapsulated so simply. People are fond of comparing movies to dreams, but when was the last time you had a dream that could be synopsized as effortlessly as a Hollywood movie?

Part of the allure of dreams is their mystery — not the kind of mystery that a Marlowe or a Freud could solve, which reduces the unknown to the status of a riddle, but the larger kind of mystery, whose uncanniness is a matter of aura and atmosphere, a cosmic question mark that can’t be resolved by plot contrivances or symbolic substitutions.… Read more »

Both Sides Now [THE CEREMONY]

Claude Chabrol has died at the age of eighty, and I’d like to celebrate his work by focusing on what I regard as probably the greatest and most masterful of his later films, made in 1995 but released in the U.S. two years later. This review, which was later used as liner notes for the film’s American DVD, ran in the Chicago Reader on February 14, 1997. — J.R.

The Ceremony

Rating **** Masterpiece

Directed by Claude Chabrol

Written by Chabrol and Caroline Eliacheff

With Sandrine Bonnaire, Isabelle Huppert, Jacqueline Bisset, Jean-Pierre Cassel, Virginie Ledoyen, and Valentin Merlet.

It’s odd that Claude Chabrol is the most neglected filmmaker of the French New Wave today, at least in this country, because he started out as the most commercial and has turned out to be the most prolific, with the possible exception of Jean-Luc Godard. I’ve seen 33 of his 46 features, but nothing in over a quarter of a century that’s quite as good as La cérémonie, an adaptation of Ruth Rendell’s novel A Judgement in Stone.

Born in 1930, about six months ahead of Godard, Chabrol came from a family of pharmacists (as did Jacques Rivette). At the age of 17 he met François Truffaut at a screening of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope, and ten years later he collaborated with Eric Rohmer on the first critical study of Hitchcock to appear anywhere.… Read more »